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Cablegate: Property Restitution in the Czech Republic

DE RUEHPG #0473/01 2261310
P 141310Z AUG 09




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: STATE 62772

1. (SBU) Summary: The United States has an interest in three broad
categories of property restitution in the Czech Republic: U.S.
citizen, religious communal (including Jewish communal) and Jewish
private property. The restitution process started in the early
1990s, yet some restitution issues remain. While most of the
private property claims have been resolved, the economic development
of many municipalities continues to be affected by the unresolved
religious claims belonging predominantly to the Catholic Church.
The claims of the Jewish communities have been mostly settled.
Deadlines established by the Czech Government for private property
restitution have expired, with the exception of Jewish looted art.
It remains to be seen if Parliament will revisit the topic after
elections on October 9-10, 2009. End Summary.

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Private Property

2. (U) The Czech Republic enacted laws to allow for restitution of
property shortly after the 1989 fall of the Communist regime. In
1991, two major laws were adopted which covered private real estate,
movable property and farmland (Act 87/1991 and 229/1991). These
initial laws covered confiscations during the Communist regime from
1948-1989. However, they did not allow for restitution of property
confiscated by the Nazi regime during World War II. A 1994
amendment (Act 116/1994) provided for the restitution of real estate
taken from Holocaust victims between 1938 and 1945. Beginning in
November 1998, a national commission headed by then Deputy Prime
Minister Rychetsky reviewed property restitution claims arising from
the Holocaust. As a result, in June 2000, the Czech Parliament
passed a law that provided for the restitution of farmland and works
of art in state museums to Holocaust victims and their heirs (Act
212/2000). The law provided for the return of 7,500 works of art
identified in Czech government museums and galleries as belonging to
Holocaust victims before the war. In 2001, the Rychetsky Commission
also helped to establish a Holocaust fund with approximately USD 15
million in state money (Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims). A
third of the fund was used between 2001 and 2005 to provide symbolic
compensation to non-citizens and others previously unable to regain
real property seized by the Nazis. The money was divided among
approximately 500 claimants residing in 27 countries.

3. (SBU) While the deadline for filing claims for farmland according
to Act 212/2000 expired in 2001, the deadline for artwork was first
extended from 2002 to 2006 and later extended indefinitely.
Deadlines for claiming real estate stipulated in the 1991 and 1994
legislation expired in 1992 and 1995 respectively. According to
Czech officials, 97 percent of all private real property claims have
been resolved. The 1994 amendment which covered the real estate
confiscated from Holocaust victims allowed for about 7,000 pieces of
real estate to be returned, according to an unofficial estimate by
the Ministry of Finance. According to government officials and
real-estate experts, the property market is not affected by
unresolved private property claims. However, it should be noted
that the restitution process was very lengthy as the claims often
had to be substantiated in court. These court cases often dragged
out for several years, or even a decade.

The Special Cases of Works of Art
4. (SBU) The restitution of works of arts of Holocaust victims and
their heirs remains the only ongoing restitution process. However,
physical restitution of artwork remains difficult. In several cases
the Czech authorities have identified certain pieces (usually among
the most valuable in a collection) as works of "national cultural
heritage" which prevents them from being exported abroad. These
national heritage laws are similar to those in place in other
European countries (notably France). In these cases, the state has
restricted export or offered to pay compensation in exchange for
retaining the works, but some believe that the art would fetch a
much higher price outside of the country. A further complication
stems from the fact that the law permits only restitution in direct
lineage, e.g. to spouses or children, as opposed to a broader
definition used in the 1991 and 1994 restitution laws concerning
real estate. Currently, the direct lineage requirement is being
challenged in the courts by Michael Klepetar, who is claiming 43
paintings which belonged to his great uncle who died with his wife
and only daughter in the Lodz ghetto in 1941.

Czech Citizenship Requirement

5. (SBU) With the exception of art restitution, the restitution of,
or compensation for, private property was restricted to those who
could claim Czech citizenship. This citizenship restriction
unfairly impacted Czechs who obtained citizenship in the U.S., as

PRAGUE 00000473 002 OF 003

these naturalized citizens were required to forfeit their former
Czechoslovak citizenship under the terms of a 1928 treaty between
the two countries. The treaty was finally abrogated August 1997, by
which time the 1992 and 1995 deadlines for filing real property
claims had already passed. It enabled, however, Holocaust survivors
and their heirs living in the U.S. to claim land according to the
2000 law.

6. (SBU) A provision of the 1928 treaty suspending its application
during time of war, combined with the fact that Czechoslovakia did
not sign a peace treaty with Japan until 1957, allowed some
Czech-Americans who naturalized before 1957 to reclaim Czech
citizenship and file timely claims. However, this provision did not
apply to their U.S. citizen descendants or protect those who
emigrated later. In a positive step, Parliament passed an amendment
to the citizenship law that authorized dual citizenship in August
1999. Deadlines for filing real property claims had long since
passed and efforts to reopen the period for filing restitution
claims have failed due to the reluctance of many Czech legislators
to revisit this issue. The former Deputy Prime Minister and current
chairman of the Constitutional Court, Pavel Rychetsky, stated that
most of the real property concerned has already been restituted to
the U.S. nationals' relatives who retained Czech citizenship.
According to him, reopening the issue would only lead to court cases
within families.

7. (U) The U.N. Human Rights Committee held in 1995 and again in
2001 that the Czech citizenship restriction, as formulated, violates
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However,
the Czech Constitutional Court in 1997 and the European Court of
Human Rights in July 2002 both held that the Czech citizenship
requirement was not inconsistent with Czech human rights

Jewish Communal Property

8. (SBU) On the whole, the Czech Government has dealt positively
with the return of Jewish communal property. The process of
restitution of Jewish property began in 1992. The Federation of
Jewish Communities (FZO) put together dossiers covering about 800
properties including synagogues, schools, cemeteries, and other
communal buildings. The list was pared down to 202 parcels because
the FZO supported the continued use by some current occupants
(including Christian denominations) and concentrated on its highest
priority properties. While the national government has agreed by
decree to restore all property in state hands, many municipalities
have refused to follow suit. In 1994, the national government
returned the Jewish Museum in Prague to the FZO.

9. (SBU) As mentioned earlier, the national commission headed by
Deputy Prime Minister Rychetsky reviewed property restitution claims
arising from the Holocaust. Following the commission's
recommendations in June 2000, the Parliament enacted legislation
that authorized the government to transfer approximately 200
additional properties to the Jewish community. It also provided for
the return of 70 works of art housed in the National Gallery to the
Jewish Museum. The Endowment Fund for Holocaust victims was
established with state money one year later. While one-third was
spent on private property compensation by 2005, the rest is
dedicated to the restoration of Jewish sacred sites and to Jewish
community life in the Czech Republic.

Other Religious Communal Property
10. (SBU) The larger issue of the restitution of church properties,
however, has yet to be resolved. Certain property of religious
orders, including 175 monasteries and other institutions, was
restituted under laws passed in 1990 (Act 298/1990), but this
generally did not include income-generating properties. The
Catholic Church seeks the return of some 700 buildings and 175,000
hectares of forests and farmland. Claims by Protestant
denominations are much smaller. The disputed farmland is affected
by a provision of the 1991 law on restitution of land (Act 229/1991,
Article 29) which stipulates that: "property belonging originally to
churches, religious orders and congregations cannot be transferred
to the possession of other persons until a special law on this
property is adopted." This has an immense impact on the real estate
market in many small towns and villages. In effect, it inhibits
their development, as the land is frequently located inside their
boundaries. No one can build on it, cultivate it, etc., even if
they have the church's permission. This legal restriction on former
religious property also affects many historical buildings located in
the municipalities. Because municipalities in effect do not have
the legal title, they are unable to obtain reconstruction grants
from European structural fund or even cover the reconstruction costs
from their own budgets. Instead, the municipalities can only watch
the gradual decay of historical buildings that could otherwise

PRAGUE 00000473 003 OF 003

attract tourists and enhance the municipality's quality of life.

11. (SBU) After many years of Czech administrations avoiding the
issue, the Topolanek coalition government made church restitution
one of its priorities when it won Parliamentary confirmation in
January 2007. The government prepared and approved necessary
legislation in April 2008 and submitted it to the Parliament for
approval. However, due to severe political infighting in the
Chamber of Deputies, the bill had not been approved before the fall
of the Topolanek government in March 2009. The interim caretaker
government of PM Jan Fischer, which will be in place until the
October 9-10 early parliamentary elections, stated it would not seek
to address the issue. Thus, the whole process will have to start

12. (SBU) Comment: The future of church restitution is unclear.
Resolution of the issue depends on the results of the upcoming
elections, which are impossible to predict. It can be said with
some certainty that a left wing minority government with the Social
Democrats (CSSD) and tacit support of Communists would not be good
news for champions of restitution. The Communists have always
believed in the supremacy of collective ownership and have never
supported any restitution legislation in the past twenty years. How
other possible electoral outcomes, such as a grand Civic Democratic
(ODS)-CSSD coalition, might affect restitution issues is less clear.
Many Social Democrats and even some members of the center-right
(ODS) do not believe in the importance or necessity of church
restitution. End Comment.


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